ALFRED P. SLOAN SCHOOL OF MANAG
On Management and the Learning Process
David A. Kolb
March 1973 652-73
INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
50 MEMORIAL DRIVE
CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS 02139
APR 28 19731
On Management and the Learning Process
David A. Kolb
March 1973 652-73
Not to be quoted or reproduced prior to publication.
Today's highly successful manager or administrator is distinguished
not so much by any single set of knowledge or skills but by his ability to
adapt to and master the changing demands of his job and career, that is,
by his ability to learn . The same is true for successful organizations.
Continuing success in a changing world requires an ability to explore new
opportunities and learn from past successes and failures. So stated these
ideas are neither new nor particularly controversial. Yet it is surprising
that this ability to learn, which is so widely regarded as important, re-
ceives so little explicit attention by managers and their organizations.
There is a kind of fatalism about learning. One either learns or he doesn't,
The ability to consciously control and manage the learning process is
usually limited to such school boy maxims as "Study hard" and "Do your
Part of the reason for this fatalism lies, 1 believe, in a lack of
understanding about the learning process itself. If managers and admin-
istrators had a model about how individuals and organizations learn they
would better be able to enhance their own and their organization's ability
to learn. This essay describes such a model and attempts to show some
of the ways in which the learning process and individual learning styles
affect management education, managerial decision-making and problem solv-
ing, and organizational learning.
The Experiential Learning Model
Let us begin with a model of how people learn — a model which I call
the experiential learning model. The model is labelled experiential for
two reasons. The first is historical, tieing it to its intellectual ori-
gins in the social psychology of Kurt Lewin in the 40 's and the sensitivity
APR 11 1973
M. I. T LIBRARIES
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training and laboratory education work of the 50 's and 60' s. The second
reason is to emphasize the important role that experience plays in the
learning process, an emphasis that differentiates this approach from other
cognitive theories of the learning process. The core of the model is a
simple description of the learning cycle, of how experience is translated
into concepts which in turn are used a guides in the choice of new experi-
ences (see Figure 1)
The Experiential Learning Model
OF CONCEPTS IN NEW
FORMATION OF ABSTRACT
CONCEPTS AND GENERALIZATIONS
Learning is conceived of as a four stage cycle. Immediate concrete
experience is the basis for observation and reflection. These observations
are assimilated into a "theory" from which new implications for action can
be deduced. These implications or hypotheses then serve as guides in acting
to create new experiences. The learner, if he is to be effective, needs
four different kinds of abilities — Concrete Experience abilities (CE) ,
Reflective Observation abilities (FO) , Abstract Conceptualization abilities
(AC) and Active Experimentation (AE) abilities. That is, he must be able
to involve himself fully, openly, and without bias in new experiences (CE) ,
he must be able to reflect on and observe these experiences from many per-
spectives (RO) ; he must be able to create concepts that integrate his ob-
servations into logically sound theories (AC) and he must be able to use
these theories to make decisions and solve problems (AE) . Yet how difficult
this ideal is to achieve! Can anyone become highly skilled in all of
these abilities or are they necessarily in conflict? How can one act and
reflect at the same time? How can one be concrete and immediate and still
be theoretical? Indeed a closer examination of the four-stage learning model
reveals that learning requires abilities that are polar opposites and that
the learner, as a result, must continually choose which set of learning
abilities he will bring to bear in any specific learning situation. More
specifically, there are two primary dimensions to the learning process.
The first dimension represents the concrete experiencing of events at one
end and abstract conceptualization at the other. The other dimension has
active experimentation at one extreme and reflective observation at the
other dimension has active experimentation at one extreme and reflective
observation at the other. Thus, in the process of learning one moves in
varying degrees from actor to observer, from specific involvement tu gen-
eral analytic detachment.
Most cognitive psychologists (e.g., Flavell , 1963; Bruner, 1960, 1966;
Harvey, Hunt & Shroeder, 1961) see the concrete/abstract dimension as a
primary dimension on which cognitive growth and learning occurs. Goldstein
and Scheerer suggest that greater abstractness results in the development
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of the following abilities:
1. To detach our ego from the outer world or from inner experience
2. To assume a mental set
3. To account for acts to oneself; to berbalize the account
4. To shift reflectively from one aspect of the situation to another
5. To hold in mind simultaneously various aspects
6. To grasp the essential of a given whole: to break up a given into
parts to isolate and to synthesize them
7. To abstract common properties reflectively; to form hierarchic
8. To plan ahead ideationally , to assume an attitude toward the more
possible and to think or perform symbolically (1941, p. 4)
Concreteness , on the other hand, represents the absence of these abilities
the immersion in and domination by one's immediate experiences. Yet as
the circular model of the learning process would imply, abstractness is not
exclusively good and concreteness exclusively bad. To be creative requires
that one be able to experience anew, freed somewhat from the constraints
of previous abstract concepts. In psychoanalytic theoirv' this need for a
concrete childlike perspective in the creative process is referred to
regression in service of the ego (Kris, 1952). Bruner (1966) in his essay
on the conditions for creativity further emphasises the dialectic tension
between abstract detachment and concrete involvement. For him the creative
act is a product of detachment and commitment, of passion and decorum, and
of a freedom to be dominated by the object of one's inquiry.
The active/reflective dimension is the other major dimension of cogni-
tive growth and learning. As growth occurs, thought becomes more reflective
and internalized, based more on the manipulation of symbols and images
than overt actions. The modes of active experimentation and reflection,
like abstractness/concreteness , stand in opposition to one another. Re-
flection tends to inhibit action and visa-versa . For example. Singer (1968)
has found that children who have active internal fantasy lives are more
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capable of inhibiting action for long periods of time than are children
with little internal fantasy life. Kagan (1964) has found on the other hand
that very active orientations toward learning situations inhibit reflection
and thereby preclude the development of analytic concepts. Herein lies the
second major dialectic in the learning process — the tension between actively
testing the implications of one's hypotheses and reflectively interpreting
data already collected.
Individual Learning Styles
As a result of our hereditary equipment, our particular past life ex-
perience, and the demands of our present environment most people develop
learning styles that emphasize some learning abilities over others. We
come to resolve the conflicts between being active and reflective and between
being inmediate and analytical in characteristic ways. Some people develop
minds that excell at assimilating disparate facts into coherent theories,
yet these same people are incapable or uninterested in deducing hypotheses
from their theory. Others are logical geniuses but find it impossible to
involve and surrender themselves to an experience. And so on. A mathe-
matician may come to place great emphasis on abstract concepts while a poet
may value concrete experience more highly. A manager may be primarily
concerned with the active application of ideas while a naturalist may de-
velop his observational skills highly. Each of us in a unique way develops
a learning style that has some weak and strong points.
For some time now I have been involved in a program of research studies
aimed at identifying different kinds of learning styles and their conse-
quences. The purpose of this research is to better understand the differ-
ent ways that people learn and solve problems so that we can both make
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individuals aware of the consequences of their own learning style and of
the alternative learning modes available to them, and improve the design
of learning experiences to take these learning style differences into
account. In this work we have developed a simple self -description inven-
tory, the Learning Style Inventory (LSI), that is designed to measure an
individual's strengths and weaknesses as a learner. The LSI measures an
individual's relative emphasis on the four learning abilities described
earlier. Concrete Experience (CE) , Reflective Observation (RO) , Abstract
Conceptualization (AC) and Active Experimentation (AE) by asking him,
several different times, to rank order four words that describe these dif-
ferent abilities. For example, one set of four words is "Feeling" (CE) ,
"Watching" (RO) , "Thinking" (AC) , "Doing" (AE) . The inventory yields six
scores, CE, RO, AC and AE plus two combination scores that indicate the
extent to which the individual emphasizes abstractness over concreteness
(AC-CE) and the extent to which an individual emphasizes active experi-
mentation over ref lection(AE-RO) .
The LSI was administered to 800 practicing managers and graduate
students in management to obtain norm for the management population. In
general these managers tended to emphasize Active Experimentation over
Reflective Observation. In addition, managers with graduate degrees
tended to rate their abstract (AC) learning skills higher. ^^Thile the
managers we tested showed many different patterns of scores on the LSI,
we have identified four dominant types of learning styles that occur most
1. The details of the inventory construction are described in Kolb (1971).
The inventory itself along with management norms appears in Kolb, Rubin and
Mclntyre, Organizational Psychology An Experiential Approach , Prentice-Hall,
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frequently. We have called these four styles — the Converger, the Diverger,
the Assimilator and the Acconanodator .
The Converger's dominant learning abilities are abstract conceptual-
ization (AC) and Active Experimentation (AE) . His greatest strength lies
in the practical application of ideas. We have called this learning style
the converger because a person with this style seems to do best in those
situations like conventional intelligence tests where there is a single
correct answer or solution to a question or problem ( cf Torrealba, 1972),
His knowledge is organized in such a way that, through hypothetical-deductive
reasoning, he can focus it on specific problems. Liam Hudson's (1966)
research on this style of learning shows that convergers are relatively
unemotional, prefering to deal with things rather than people. They tend
to have narrow technical interests, and choose to specialize in the physi-
cal sciences. Our research shows that this learning style is characteristic
of many engineers.
The Diverger has the opposite learning strengths of the converger.
He is best at Concrete Experience (CE) and Reflective Observation (RO) .
His greatest strength lies in his imaginative ability. He excells in the
ability to view concrete situations from many perspectives. We have labelled
this style "Diverger" because a person with this style performs better in situ-
ations that call for generation of ideas such as a "brainstorming" idea ses-
sion. Hudson's (1966) work on this learning style shows that divergers are
interested in people and tend to be imaginative and emotional. They have
broad cultural interests and tend to specialize in the arts. Our research shows
that this style is characteristic of managers from humanities and liberal arts
backgrounds. Personnel m anagers tend to be characterized by this learning style
2. The reason that there are k dominant styles is that AC and CE are highly
negatively correlated as are RO and AE. Thus individuals who score high on
both AC and CE or on both AE and RO occur with less frequency than dc the
other four combinations of LSI scores.
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The Assimilator 's dominant learning abilities are Abstract Conceptual-
ization (AC) and Reflective Observation (RO) . His greatest strength lies
in his ability to create theoretical models. He excells in inductive
reasoning; in assimilating disparate observations into an integrated ex-
planation. He, like the converger, is less interested in people and more
concerned for abstract concepts, but he is less concerned with the practical
use of theories. For him it is more important that the theory be logically
sound and precise. As a result, this learning style is more characteristic
of the basic sciences rather than the applied sciences. In organizations
this learning style is found most often in the research and planning depart-
The Accoimnodator has the opposite learning strengths of the Assimilator.
He is best at Concrete Experience (CE) and Active Experimentation (AE) .
His greatest strength lies in doing things; in carrying out plans and experi-
ments and involving himself in new experiences. He tends to be more of a
risk-taker than people with the other three learning styles. We have
labelled this style "accoimnodator" because he tends to excel in those situ-
ations where he must adapt himself to specific immediate circumstances.
In situations where the theory or plan do not f?! the "facts", he will most
likely discard the plan or theory. (His opposite style-type, the assimil-
ator, would be more likely to disregard or re-examine the facts.) The
accommodator is at ease with people but is sometimes seen as impatient and
"pushy". His educational background is often in technical or practical
fields such as business. In organizations people with this learning style
are found in "action-oriented" jobs often in marketing or sales.
These different learning styles can be illustrated graphically (see
Figure 2) by plotting the average LSI scores for managers in our sample
who reported their undergraduate college major (only these majors with
more than 10 people responding are included) . Before interpreting this
data some cautions are in order. First, it should be remembered that all
of the individuals in the sample are managers or managers-to-be. In addi-
tion most of these men have completed or are in graduate school. These
two facts should produce learning styles that are somewhat more active and
abstract than the population at large, (as indicated by total sample mean
scores on AC-CE and AE-RO Cf +4.5 and +2,9 respectively). The interaction
between career, high level of education and undergraduate major may produce
distinctive learning styles. For example, physicists who are not in industry
may be somewhat more reflective than those in this sample. Secondly, under-
graduate majors are described only in the most gross terms. There are
many forms of engineering or psychology. A business major at one school
can be quite different than that at another. However, even if we take
these cautions into consideration the distribution of undergraduate majors
on the learning style grid is strikingly consistent with theory. Under-
graduate business majors tend to have accommodative learning styles while
engineers on the average fall in the convergent quadrent. History, English,
political science and psychology majors all have divergent learning styles,
along with economics and sociology. Physics majors are very abstract fall-
ing between the convergent and assimilative quadrents. What these data
show is that one's undergraduate education is a major factor in the develop-
ment of his learning style. Whether this is because individual's
learning styles are shaped by the fields they enter or because of selection
3. Many of these differences in LSI scores among disciplines are highly
statistically significant especially when they are grouped into physical
sciences, social sciences, and the arts (see Kclb , 1971 for details).
^— V n>
/— N (T)
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processes that put people into and out of disciplines is an open question
at this point. Most probably both factors are operating — people choose
fields which are consistent with their learning styles and are further shaped
to fit the learning norms of their field once they are in it. When there
is a mismatch between the fields learning norm's and the individuals learn-
ing style people will either change or leave the field. Plovnick's (1971)
research indicated that the latter alternative is more likely the case. He
studied a major university physics department and concluded that the major
emphasis in physics education was on convergent learning. He predicted
that physics students who had convergent learning styles would be content
with their majors whereas physics majors who were divergent in their learn-
ing style would be uncertain of physics as a career and would take more
courses outside of the physics department than their convergent colleagues.
His predictions were confirmed. Those students who are not "fitted" for
the convergent learning style required in physics tend to turn away from
physics as profession.
These results pose something of an educational dilemma for the physics
department. To contribute in physics today one must know many facts so
learning content is important; and takes time, time that might be spent de-
velopment the convergent skills of divergers. So isn't it simpler to select
(implicitly or explicitly) people who already possess these convergent exper-
imental and theoretical skills? Perhaps, but in the process what is lost
is the creative tension between convergence and divergence. The result of
this process may be a program that produces fine technicians but few inno-
vators. Kuhn (1962) put the issue this way, "Because the old must be re-
valued and reordered when assimilating the new, discovery and invention in
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the sciences are usually intrinsically revolutionary. Therefore they do
demand just that flexibility and open-mindedness that characterize and
indeed define the divergent." (It just may be that one of the reasons why
creative contributions in the sciences are made primarily by younger men
(Lehman, 1953) is that the learning styles of older men have been shaped
by their professional training and experience so that they adapt well to
the inquiry norms of their profession but the creative tension is lost.)
Learning Styles and Management Education
Differences in learning style create similar problems for management
education. The manager who comes to the university for mid-career education
experiences something of a "culture shock". Fresh from a world of time
deadlines and concrete specific problems that he must solve, he is suddenly
immersed in a strange slow-paced world of generalities where the elegant
solution to problems is sought even when workable solutions have been found.
One gets rewarded here for reflection and analysis rather than concrete
goal-directed action. The manager who "acts before he thinks, — if he ever
thinks" meets the scientist who "thinks before he acts — if he ever acts".
^^Our research on learning styles has shown that managers on the whole are
distinguished by very strong active experimentation skills and are very
weak on reflective observation skills. Business school faculty members usually
have the reverse profile. To bridge this gap in learning styles Lho man-
agement educator must somehow respond to pragmatic demands for relevance
and the application of knowledge while encouraging the reflective examin-
ation of experience that is necessary to refine old theories and to build
new ones. In encouraging reflective observation the teacher often is seen
as an interrupter of action - as a passive "ivory tower" thinker. Indeed
this is a critical role to be played in the learning process. Yet if
the reflective observer role is not internalized by the students themselves
the learning process can degenerate into a value conflict between teacher
and student each maintaining that theirs is the right perspective for
Neither the faculty nor student perspective alone is valid in my view.
Managerial education will not be improved by eliminating theoretical analysis
or relevant case problems. Improvement will come through the integration
of the scholarly and practical learning styles. My approach to achieving
this integration has been to directly apply the experiential learning model
in the classroom (Kolb, Rubin and Mclntyre , 1971). To do this we created
a workbook providing games, role plays, and exercises (concrete experiences)
that focus on 15 central concepts in organizational psychology. These
simulations provide a common experiential starting point for managers and
faculty to explore the relevance of psychological concepts for their work.
In traditional management education methods the conflict between scholar
and practitioner learning styles is exaggerated because the material to be
taught is filtered through the learning style of the faculty member in his
lectures or his presentation and analysis of cases. The student is "one
down" in his own analysis because his data is second-hand and already biased.
In the experiential learning approach this filtering process does noc take
place because both teacher and student are observers of immediate exper-
iences which they both interpret according to their own learning style.
In this approach to learning the teacher's role is that of a facilitator
of a learning process that is basically self-directed. He helps students
to experience in a personal and immediate way the phenomena in his field
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of specialization. He provides observational schemes and perspectives
from which to observe these experiences. He stands ready with alternative
theories and concepts as the student attempts to assimilate his observations
into his own conception of reality. He assists in deducing the implica-
tions of the student's concepts and in designing new "experiments" to test
these implications through practical "real world" experience.
There are two goals in the experiential learning process. One is a
goal to learn the specifics of a particular subject matter. The other goal
is learning about ones own strengths and weaknesses as a learner i.e. ,
learning how to leam from experience. When the process works well, managers
finish their educational experience not only with new intellectual insights;
but also with an understanding of their own learning style. This under-
standing of learning strengths and weaknesses helps in the back home appli-
cation of what has been learned and provides a framework for continuing
learning on the job. Day to day experience becomes a focus for testing and
exploring new ideas. Learning is no longer a special activity reserved for
the classroom, it becomes an integral and explicit part of work itself.
Learning Styles and Managerial Problem-solving
We have been able to identify relationships between a manager's learn-
ing style and his educational experiences but how about his current behavior
on the job? Do managers with different learning styles approach problem
solving and decision-making differently? Theoretically, the answer to this
question should be "yes" since learning and problem solving are not different
processes but the same basic process of adaptation viewed from different
perspectives. To illustrate this point I have overlaid in Figure 3 a typical
model of the problem solving process (after Pounds 1965) on the experiential
Figure 3 Comparison of the experiential Learning Model
with a typical model of
the problem solving process (after Pounds 1965)
model or goal
leamlng model. In this figure we can see that the stages in a problem
solving sequence generally correspond with the learning style strengths
of the four major learning styles described earlier. The accommodator 's
problem-solving strenths lie in executing solutions and in initiating
problem finding based on some goal or model about how things should be.
The diverger's problems solving strengths lie in identifying the multitude
of possible problems and opportunities that exist in reality ("compare
model with reality" and "identify differences") . The assimilator excells
in the abstract model building that is necessary to choose a priority problem
and alternative solutions. The converger's strengths lie in the evaluation
of solution consequences and solution selection.
To date, two studies have been conducted to discover whether there is
anything to this theoretical model. The first study was conducted by
Charles Stabell (Stabell, 1973) in the Trust Department of a large U.S.
midwestern bank. One aim of his study was to discover how the learning
styles of investment portfolio managers affected their problem solving and
decision making in the management of the assets in their portfolios. While
his study involved only 31 managers, he found a strong correspondence between
the type of decisions these managers faced and their learning styles. More
specifically he found that nearly all of the managers in the Investment
Advisory section of the department, a high risk high pressure job (as indi-
cated by a large percentage of holdings in common stock, a large percentage
of discretionary accounts and a high performance and risk orientation on
the part of clients) had accommodative learning styles (scoring very high
on the AE and CE LSI scales). On the other hand the men in the Personal
Trust section where risk and performance orientation were low and where
there were few discretionary accounts and fewer holdings in common stock
scored highest on Reflective Observation. This finding supports our earlier
analysis that high pressure management jobs develop and select for active
experimentation learning skills and inhibit reflective observation learning
Stabell was interested in whether he could identify differences, on the
basis of their LSI scores, in the way managers went about making investment
decisions. He focused his research on differences between managers with
concrete experience (CE) learning skills and abstract conceptualization (AC)
learning skills. He asked these managers to evaluate the importance of
the information sources that they used in making decisions and found several
interesting differences. First CE managers cited more people as important
sources (eg. colleagues, brokers and traders) while the AC managers listed
more analytically oriented printed material as sources (eg. economic analyses,
industry and company • reviews) . In addition, it seemed that CE managers
sought services that would give them a specific recommendation that they
could accept or reject (eg. a potential list) while the AC managers sought
information that they could analyze themselves in order to choose an invest-
ment. This analytic orientation of the AC managers is further illustrated
by the fact that they tended to use more information sources in their de-
cisions than the CE managers. These data fit well with the learning/problem
solving model in Figure 3. The concrete managers prefer go/no go imple-
mentation decisions based on personal recommendations while the abstract man-
agers prefer to consider and evaluate alternative solutions themselves.
The second study of the relationship between learning styles and manager-
ial problem solving was a laboratory computer simulation of a production
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"trouble-shooting" problem where the problem solver had to determine which
specific type of "widget" was failure prone. This experiment which is a
modification of a earlier problem-solving experiment by Bruner et . al. (1956)
was conducted by Jerry Grochow as part of his doctoral dissertation (1973).
His subjects for the experiment were 22 middle level managers at MIT's
Sloan Fellows program. Grochow was particularly interested in the different
types of problem solving strategies that assimilators and accommodators
would use to solve this problem. He predicted that the accommodators would
use a strategy that called for little complexity in use and interpretation,
little inference from the data, and little cognitive strain in assimilating
information; while assimilators would prefer a strategy that had the opposite
characteristics, i.e., more complex use and interpretation and more assimilation
strain and required inference. The former strategy, called successive scan-
ning was simply a process whereby the problem solver scans the data base of
widgets for a direct test of his current hypothesis. It requires little
conceptual analysis since the current hypothesis is either validated or not
in each trial. The latter strategy called simultaneous scanning is in a
sense an "optimal" strategy in that each data point is used to eliminate the
maximum number of data points still possible. This strategy requires con-
siderable conceptual analysis since the problem solver must keep several
hypotheses in his head at the same time and deduce the optimal widegt to
examine in order to test these hypotheses. The results of his experiment
confirmed his hypothesis that accommodators would use successive scanning
while assimilators would use the more analytical simultaneous scanning stra-
tegy. He further found that managers with accommodative learning styles
tended to show more inconsistency in their use of strategies while the
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assimilative managers were quite consistent in their use of the simultaneous
scanning strategy. The accommodative managers seemed to be taking a more
intuitive approach, switching strategies as they gathered more data during
the experiment. Interestingly enough Grochow found no differences between
accommodative and assimilative managers in the amount of time it took them
to solve the problem. Though the two groups used very different styles in
this problem they performed equally well.
The results of both of these studies are consistent with the learning/
problem solving model. Managers learning styles are measureably related to
the way in which they solve problems and make decisions on the job and in
the laboratory. Let us now turn to how these different managerial learning/
problem solving styles affect organizational functioning.
The Organization as a Learning System
Like individuals, organizations learn and develop distinctive learning
styles. They, like individuals, do so through their transactions with the
environment and through their choice of how to relate to that environment.
This has come to be known as the open systems view of organizations. Since
many organizations are large and complex, the environment they relate to
becomes highly differentiated and diverse. The way the organization adapts
to this external environment is to differentiate itself into units each of
which deals with just one part of the firm's external conditions. Marketing
and sales face problems associated with the market, customers, and competi-
tors. Research deals with the academic and technological worlds. Production
deals with production equipment and raw materials sources. Personnel and
labor relations deal with the labor market. And so on.
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Because of this need to relate to different aspects of the environment
the different units of the firm develop characteristic ways of thinking
and workitig together; different styles of decision-making and problem solv-
ing. These units select and shape managers to solve problems and make de-
cisions in the way their enviomment demands. In fact, Lawrence and Lorsch
define organizational differentiation as " the difference in cognitive and emo -
tional orientation among managers in different functional departments " (1967,
If the organization is thought of as a learning system then each of the
differentiated units that is charged with adapting to the challenges of one
segment of the enviornment can be thought of as having a characteristic
learning style that is best suited to meet those environmental demands.
The Learning Style Inventory (LSI) should be a useful tool for measuring
this organizational differentiation among the functional units of a firm.
To test this we studied about 20 managers from each of five functional groups
in a midwestern division of a large American industrial corporation. The
five functional groups are described below followed by my hypothesis about
the learning style that should characterize each group given the environments
to which they relate.
1. Marketing (n=20) . This group is made up primarily of former salesmen.
They have a non-quantitative "intuitive" approach to their work.
Because of their practical sales orientation in meeting customer demaiilj
they should have accommodative learning styles, i.e., concrete and active.
2. Research (n=22) . The work of this group is split about 50/50 between
4. This data was collected by Frank Weisner as part of his Sloan MS thesis
(Weisner, 1971). I have reanalysed his data for presentation here.
_ 21 _
pioneer research and applied research projects. The emphasis is on
basic research. Researchers should be the most assimilative group,
i.e., abstract and reflective, a style fitted to the world of knowledge
3. Personnel/Labor Relations (n=20) . In this company men from this depart-
ment serve two primary functions, interpreting personnel policy and
promoting interaction among groups to reduce conflict and disagreement.
Because of their "people orientation" these men should be predominantly
divergers , concrete and reflective.
4. Engineering (n=18). This group is made up primarily of design engineers
who are quite production oriented. They should be the most convergent
subgroup, i.e., abstract and active, although they should be less abstract
than the research group. They represent a bridge between thought and
5. Finance (n=20) . This group has a strong computer, information systems
bias. Finance men given their orientation toward the mathematical task
of information system design should be highly abstract. Their crucial
role in organizational survival should produce an active orientation.
Thus finance group members should have convergent learning styles.
Figure 4 shows the average scores on the active/reflective (AE-RO)
and abstract/concrete (AC-CE) learning dimensions for the five functional
groups. These results are consistent with the above predictions with the
exception of the finance group whose scores are less active than predicted
and thus they fall between the assimilative and the convergent quadrant.
The LSI clearly differentiates the learning styles that characterize the
functional units of at least this one company. Managers in each of these
units apparently use very different styles in doing their jobs.
^^But differentiation is only part of the story of organizational adapt-
ation and effectiveness. The result of the differentiation necessary to
adapt to the external environment is the creation of a corresponding internal
need to integrate and coordinate the different units. This necessitates
resolving in some way the conflicts inherent in these different learning
styles. In actual practice this conflict gets resolved in many ways. Some-
times it is resolved through confrontation and integration of the different
learning styles. More often, however, it is resolved through dominance by
one unit over the other units resulting in an unbalanced organizational
learning style. We all know of organizations that are controlled by the
marketing department or are heavily engineering oriented, etc. This im-
balance can be effective if it matches environmental demands in a stable
environment; but it can be costly if the organizaiton is called upon to learn
to respond to changing environmental demands and opportunities.
One important question concerns the extent to which the integrative
conflict between units is a function of managers learning styles rather than
merely a matter of conflicting job and role demands. To get at this question
we asked the managers in each of the five functional units in the above
study to rate how difficult they found it to communicate with each of the
other four units. If integrative communication is a function of learning
style there should be a correspondence between how similar two units are in
their learning style and how easy they find it to communicate together.
5. "t" tests for significance of difference between groups on the abstract/
concrete dimension yield the following 1-tail probabilities that are less
than .10, Marketing is more concrete than personnel (p<.10), engineering
(p <.05), research (p < .005) and finance (p<r.005). Finance and research are
more abstract than personnel (on both comparisons pc.005). On the active/
reflective dimension research is more reflective than marketing (pK.05) ,
engineering (p-^.05), and to a lesser extent finance (p.f.10).
When the average communication difficulty ratings among the five units
are compared with differences in unit learning styles we find that in most
cases this hypothesis is confirmed, i.e., those units who are most different
in learning style have most difficulty communicating with one another (see
Weisner, 1971, p. 56-59). To test this notion more rigorously we did a
more intensive study of communication between the two units who were most
different in learning styles, marketing and research. To ascertain whether
it was the manager's learning style itself that accounted for communication
difficulty we divided managers in the marketing unit into two groups. One
group had learning styles that were similar to those managers in research
(i.e., assimilators) while the other group had accommodative learning styles
typical of the marketing function. The research group was divided similarly.
The results of this analysis are shown in Figure 5. When managers have
learning styles similar to another group they have little trouble communi-
cating with that group. When style differences are great communication
difficulty rises. These results suggest that managers learning styles are
an important factor to consider in achieving integration among functional
Managing the Learning Process
To conclude let us return to the problem we began with — how managers
and organizations can explicitly manage their learning process. We have
seen that the experiential learning model is useful not only for examining
the educational process but also for understanding managerial problem solving
and organizational adaptation. But how can an awareness of the experiential
learning model and our own individual learning style help improve individual
and organizational learning? Two recommendations seem important.
- 25 -
Figure 5 Communication difficulty between
Marketing and Research as a function of Learning Style
with Research by:
with Marketing by:
Marketing Mgrs .
significance of difference
Mann Whitney U Test 1 tail = p4.04
significance of differences = p-<.09
First, learning should be an explicit objective that is pursued as
consciously and deliberatly as profit or productivity. Managers and organ-
izations should budget time to specifically learn from their experiences.
When important meetings are held or important decisions taken time should
be set aside to critique and learn from these events. In my experience all
too few organizations have a climate which allows for free exploration of
questions like "What have we learned from this venture?" Usually active ex-
perimentation norms dictate "We don't have time, lets move on."
Which leads to the second recommendation. The nature of the learning
process is such that opposing perspectives, action and reflection, concrete
involvement and analytical detachment, are all essential for optimal learn-
ing. When one perspective comes to dominate others, in the long run learning
effectiveness is reduced. From this we can conclude that the most effective
learning systems are those that can tolorate differences in perspective.
This point can be illustrated by the case of an electronics firm that I
have worked with over the years. The firm was started by a group of engineers
with a unique product. For several years they had no competitors and when
some competition entered the market they continued to dominate and do well
because of their superior engineering quality. Today is a different story.
They are now faced with stiff competition in their original product area.
In addition their very success has caused new problems. They are no longer
a small intimate company but a large organization with several plants in
the U.S. and Europe. The company has had great difficulty in responding
to these changes because it still responds to problems primarily from an
engineering point of view. Most of the top executives in the company are
former engineers with no formal management training. Many of the specialists
in marketing, finance and personnel who have been brought in to help the
organization solve its new problems feel like "second class citizens". Their
ideas just don't seem to carry much weight. What was once the organization's
strength, its engineering expertise, has become to some extent its weak-
ness. Because engineering has flourished at the expense of the development
of other organizational functions like marketing and the management of human
resources the firm is today struggling with rather than mastering its en-
- 28 -
Bruner, Jerome S., F...avs for the Left Han d. New York: Atheneu., 1966,
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William Phillips Information processing m the child.
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M.I.T. Sloan School Working Paper no. 535-71, iy/i.
Kolb, David, irwin Rubin and James ^clntyre Oganizatio^^
An Experiential Approach , Englewood Cliffs, N.J..
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15. Lehman, H.C. , A.e and Achievement , Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University
- 29 -
16. Plovnick, Mark S. , A cognitive ability theory of occupational roles,
M.I.T. School of Management, Working Paper (I'SZA-?!, Spring 1971.
17. Pounds, William, On Problem Finding, Sloan School Working Paper
18. Psychological Monographs , 78, No. 1, 1964.
19. Singer, Jerome, The importance of daydreaming. Psycholo g y Today , 1968,
1^, No. 11, pp. 18-26.
20. Stabell, Charles The Impact of a Conversational Computer System on
Human Problem Solving Behavior, unpublished working paper, M.I.T.
Sloan School, 1973.
21. Torrealba, David, Convergent and Divergent Learning Styles, MS thesis
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M/iy 1 6 799^
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